The cattle were the main business of the California ranchos. In order to receive a land grant from the Mexican government, the ranchero (rancho owner) had to agree to stock the rancho with at least 150 head of cattle. A ranchero's wealth was counted not in the size of his rancho lands, but in the number of cattle that he owned. Though some sheep and some horses were raised, they were never as important to the ranchos as the cattle.
CATTLE FROM MEXICO
These cattle had originally been brought north from Mexico. The first cattle in California belonged to the missions. When the mission lands were taken away from the Catholic Church in the mid-1830s, the herds of cattle were given by the government to individuals. These were the cattle that ended up on the ranchos.
The Mexican cattle were lean, short-haired animals with long, thin legs and long horns. They were many different shades of color, some light colored, some darker. They could run very fast. They had lots of space to run on the ranchos, as there were no fences to stop them.
Rancho cattle were considered rather fierce and dangerous, mostly because of their wide, sharp horns. The vaqueros (cowboys) who worked with the herds had to be very careful or they could get hurt by the sharp horns.
ROUNDING UP THE CATTLE
Because there were no fences on the rancho, and no fences between one rancho and the next, the cattle ranged over large distances. Cattle from several ranchos were often mixed together. In the early spring, the vaqueros rounded up all the cattle. This round-up was called a rodeo.
It took many days of riding to gather the cattle. The vaqueros used reatas (lariats, or long ropes with loops at the end) to lasso the steers. The animals were herded to one rancho in the area, where they were put into corrals. The fences of the corrals were often made from cactus plants, piled close together. After the animals were in the corrals, they were sorted out as to which rancho they belonged.
BRANDING THE CATTLE
Ownership of the cattle was shown by a brand burned into the animal's side with a hot branding iron. The iron was about five inches across and six inches long. It was attached to a long, heavy iron handle. The first rancheros branded their steers on the left hip. If the cattle were sold, the new owner put his brand on the left shoulder.
Each ranchero had his own brand. Everyone was required to register their brand with the local government offices, where the brands were listed in a book of records. The ownership branding iron was called el fierro para herrar los ganados (the iron for branding cattle). A second branding iron, used to mark cattle when they were sold, was called el fierro para ventear (the iron for the sale).
At the spring round-up the new calves stayed close to their mothers. This was how the vaqueros knew which ranchero owned each calf. The calves were then branded with the same brand as their mothers. Sometimes the calves' ears were cut in a special pattern, as a second mark of ownership. If there were any stray calves who were no longer close to a mother, these calves became the property of the rancho where the round-up was being held.
Round-up was the time for the cattle to be counted, so each ranchero would know how many animals he had in his herd. The vaquero kept the count by making a notch in a stick for every ten animals. A judge, called the juez del campo, settled any arguments as to ownership of cattle.
The long days of hard work of the round-up were followed by a fiesta. Women and children from all the surrounding ranchos gathered at the rancho where the round-up was taking place. Everyone celebrated with feasting and dancing.
The feasting started with a whole steer roasted over an open pit in the ground. There were always tortillas (flat, thin corn cakes) made by the women. To this was added oranges grown on the rancho, and coffee and sugar purchased from the trading ships that sailed along the California coast. Everyone ate outside at long plank tables.
For the dancing that followed dinner, a shelter called an enramada was made from brush and decorated with brightly-colored paper flowers made by the young girls.
THE CATTLE BUSINESS
Though the cattle on the rancho were a source of food for the family, they were more important for their hides and tallow (fat). The hides were traded to the merchant ships that came from Spain and the eastern United States. People on the east coast of America wanted the hides for leather to make shoes, saddles, and other things. The Californians did not produce many of the supplies they needed, and were happy to get these things from the merchant ships, in trade for the hides. They traded for tools, furniture, sugar and salt, cloth and lace.
A ranchero did not mind if someone else killed one of his steers and used the meat for food, as long as that person left the hide for the owner. It was the hide that was the valuable part of the animal. During the 1830s and 1840s, each hide was worth about $2. The hides were known as "California banknotes" since they were often used in place of money.
The entire income of the rancho depended on the hides and tallow. The tallow from one steer was also worth about $2. The tallow was used for making soap and candles.
Before 1830, the rancheros used the missions as trading posts. They took the hides to the missions, and the padres traded the hides to the merchant ships. After the missions were disbanded, the rancheros traded directly with the ships.
In 1849, hundreds of people poured into northern California in search of gold. This made another market for the rancho cattle. Now it was the meat rather than the hides that brought money. For a few years, many southern California rancheros drove their herds north to San Francisco and Sacramento, where they sold them as food. Cattle were reported to be worth $75 each in San Francisco in 1852. The price dropped quickly, though, to about $20 each as more herds were taken north. By 1860, this market had largely ended and rancheros who were still in business were back to selling hides.
The time when the cattle were slaughtered for their hides was called matanza, or the killing time. It lasted from July through September. Steers were taken when they were about three years old. Cows were kept for breeding.
First, the steers had to be found. The men would go on horseback in groups of three, hunting for cattle with their rancho's brand. These riders were called navajadores, or stickers. They had long, sharp knives with which to kill the steer.
After the navajadores had killed the steer, the peladores, or strippers, removed its hide. Behind the peladores came the tasajoras, or butchers, who cut the meat from the animal and gathered the fat to be made into tallow. The tasajoras were often Indian women.